Tony Badran is a Research Fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) in Washington, DC. He focuses on Lebanon, Syria and...
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By Tony Badran
If there is one group in Syria that embodies the trans-national currents running through Syrian society, and which is likely to have increasing influence in the post-Assad era, it’s the Kurds. Sitting at the intersection between Turkey, Syria and Iraq, the Kurdish minority, it is commonly recognized, will play a critical role in the success of the Syrian revolution and in the shaping of the post-Assad order.
It is also known that the Syrian Kurdish political scene is notoriously fragmented, with the traditional Kurdish parties harboring misgivings toward the Arab opposition groups as well as toward Turkey. These various cleavages have afforded the Assad regime an opening it sought to exploit.
Early on in the uprising, Bashar al-Assad moved to neutralize the Kurdish areas. He issued a decree naturalizing the registered stateless Kurds (the so-called ajanib, or “foreigners”) and repealed Decree 49 of 2008, which regulated land use and ownership in the border regions, and which was unanimously seen as anti-Kurdish.
Jordi Tejel, an expert on Kurdish affairs at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, with whom I spoke by email, agrees that these concessions were made “preventatively, in order to hinder or at least minimize Kurdish participation in the Syrian revolution.”
However, Assad did not fully achieve his objective. One factor that has consistently frustrated his efforts has been the Kurdish youth. “From the beginning,” Tejel commented, “the Kurdish youth has been active in demonstrations and sit-ins both in Northern Syria (especially in the Jazira) and in big cities such as Damascus and Aleppo. Thus, for example, students arrested at Aleppo University are mainly Kurds.”
However, with the exception of the Yekiti Party, the Azadi Party and the Kurdish Future Movement—which, as Tejel noted to me, supported the revolution from the outset—the position of the other dozen or so traditional Kurdish parties remained ambiguous. “As a result of this,” Tejel added, some Kurdish youth “established their own revolutionary movements in Northern Syria. Interestingly, these groups worked closely together with the rest of the youth movement across Syria.”
Assad sought to capitalize on this divide as well. In June, he invited representatives from 12 Kurdish parties to meet with him in an attempt to coopt them. They declined—or rather, were forced to. Tejel explained that the Kurdish “youth protesters openly stated that they wanted the downfall of the regime and that the Kurdish parties could not establish a dialogue with Assad.”
Wladimir van Wilgenburg, an analyst with the Jamestown Foundation, concurred in an email, adding, “There is a lot of distrust among Syrian Kurds towards the Kurdish parties.”
Much like with the Arab opposition, a defining chasm in the Kurdish scene is the one between the youth and the traditional elites.
Another part of Assad’s tactic was to reach out to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its affiliate in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). Suspicions quickly arose that there was a tacit deal between the regime and the PKK/PYD. Van Wilgenburg says, “These suspicions are empowered by the existence of Kurdish schools opened by the PKK, and the fact that the most important PKK leader [Murat] Karayilan indicated they would not be part of the conspiracy against Iran and Syria.”
The rekindling of the PKK’s relationship with the Assad regime is borne out of necessity, Tejel asserted—a result of the intense pressure the group is facing in Iraqi Kurdistan. For Assad, the alliance offered a way to counter those Kurds, like the Kurdish Future Movement’s former leader Mashaal Temo, who were willing to work with the Syrian Arab opposition.
However, Tejel was quick to add that “this ‘alliance,’ so to speak, is fragile.” For one, as a result of its questionable posture toward the regime, the PYD “is now isolated within the Kurdish arena and its position has become terribly uncomfortable. The PYD is especially sensitive to the criticism pouring from the youth.”
Moreover, the PYD’s relations with the Kurdish National Council—a recently formed coalition of 10 parties dominated by the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria, a sister organization of Masoud Barzani’s KDP in Iraq—are frayed. And there were even allegations that the PKK/PYD may have been complicit in Mashaal Temo’s murder.
These divisions currently define the traditional Kurdish political scene. Effectively, the Kurdish parties are now split into three main blocs: the Kurdish National Council (KNC), the PYD, and The Union of Kurdish Democratic Forces in Syria—a coalition formed in December, including primarily the Kurdish Future Movement. (Outside this framework of parties are also the various youth gatherings and local Kurdish coordination committees, some of which have united in a coalition called Avahi.)
The Kurdish National Council recently moved to pressure the Arab opposition to recognize Kurdish rights and demands. Following a major meeting last week in Erbil, where they sought to formulate a common platform, the parties of the KNC suspended their participation in both major opposition groupings—the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the NCB.
Instead of seeking concessions from the regime, the Kurdish parties are now negotiating with the Arab opposition. In that regard, Iraq’s Masoud Barzani has assumed a notable role.
Barzani, who had declined an invitation from Assad to visit Syria, hosted the president of the SNC Burhan Ghalyoun earlier this month. According to some reports, Ghalyoun sought Barzani’s mediation to get the KNC to join the SNC. Negotiations are apparently ongoing, and the KNC’s secretary general, Abdul Hakim Bashar, said on Monday that the Kurdish council was awaiting the SNC’s response to some amendments to their respective political programs, which could allow for the two groupings to join forces.
Iraqi Kurdistan is thus emerging as a critical player in the Syrian arena, and a convergence point for many of Assad’s opponents, from Turkey to Lebanon. Even more so than with the Druze, the politics of the Kurds highlight the impact of cross-border ethnic ties and the critical role they will play in forging Syria’s future.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay. This article was first published on NOWLebanon.com